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Municipal Millennials

Jason Smith at Jackson City Hall

Jeremy Peters at the Tech Brewery

Michael Armitage at the FestiFools studio down the hall from the U of M Police Department

Jeremy Peters with his brother Brian at the Ghostly International office at the Tech Brewery

Michael Armitage at the FestiFools studio down the hall from the U of M Police Department

Jeremy Peters at the Ghostly International office at the Tech Brewery

Michael Armitage heads into work at the U of M Police Department

Jason Smith at Jackson City Hall

Jason Smith at Jackson City Hall

Millennials may be rapidly staking out territory in the worlds of business and culture, but they remain severely outnumbered by Gen Xers and most especially baby boomers in the arena of government. Data gathered by the Michigan Suburbs Alliance last year found that millennials constituted 22.5 percent of the population in metro Detroit, but less than 10 percent of the region's council, board and commission members. Locally, only one member of Ann Arbor's city council and no members of Ypsilanti's are under the age of 40. Similarly, both city's planning commissions are dominated by middle-aged (and older) residents. 
 
However, there are encouraging signs: Ann Arbor's DDA has two members under 40 and Washtenaw County's nine-member Board of Commissioners boasts a pair of millennials. Furthermore, tools like the Suburbs Alliance's On Board are making it easier to find ways to get involved in government, and last year's elections brought a number of young new faces to locally elected offices.  

Concentrate spoke with three local officials and commission members under 35 about how their political priorities differ from their older colleagues, and how to get more of their peers involved in civic affairs.
 
Jason Smith, 31, Mayor of Jackson 
Jason Smith says the differences between himself and his older opponents in Jackson's 2013 mayoral race were "pretty glaring." Smith disagreed with his opponents on blight management and the city's decision to pass on an opportunity to build a solar power plant. But Smith says the crucial factor in his victory was his support of the city's marijuana decriminalization ordinance, which he says brought young voters out "in droves." 
 
"It was an awesome thing to see," he says. "There was a little bit of a fight from the old guard, if you will, but it passed resoundingly."
 
Now that he's in office, Smith is gearing up to build public support for the August renewal of a parks and recreation millage, while also tackling the larger issues of Jackson's declining tax base. But he says he's going to need the continued support of younger voters -- which could be a challenge in a town where he says political apathy often prevails, summed up by the statement: "Well, this is Jackson." 
 
Smith says he'd long harbored a number of unrealized ideas on how to better his hometown, but his inspiration to actually run came from his friend Jared Paul, an activist and poet from Rhode Island. "I'm paraphrasing here, but he kind of said, 'If you're so smart, why don't you do it?'" Smith says.
 
Smith says he aims to continue engaging his peers not only in elections, but also in public hearings and community meetings. "We need that effort especially from the younger generation, because they're going to help us shape how we influence policy for the next 10-plus years," he says. "If we continue to not have their involvement, then the programs that we work towards are not going to be focused towards them because we don't know what they want."
 
Michael Armitage, 31, Mayor of Milan
"Some kids want to grow up to be doctors," Michael Armitage says. "Some kids want to grow up to be athletes or whatever. My passion was always I wanted to be mayor." 
 
Armitage achieved that goal last year at a remarkably young age, but he got started in city government even earlier, joining the Milan Planning Commission at 20 and Milan City Council at 22. He says entertainment and cultural life were key issues for him in his early years on city council, as represented by his efforts to create a skate park for the city. 
 
"It's not necessarily that people were opposed to those issues or opposed to the ideas," Armitage says. "It's just that there wasn't somebody championing them." 
 
Still, Armitage says "intimidation" can be a major hindrance to many young people getting into government, and it affected his early career too. "You'd hear a lot, 'He's a good kid. I'm just not sure if he's ready for that kind of position at that age,'" he says. "I really felt that I had to prove myself, that even though I was young I understood the issue and I had a lot to offer."
 
Although he's no longer championing a skate park, Armitage says having "things to do" close to home is still important to him and his peers. 
 
"A lot of people, especially my age, we live in Milan," he says. "But if you want to go out to eat, you have to travel because we don't have a lot of those kinds of businesses." 
 
Since taking office as mayor, he's also brought the city into the digital age in a major way: establishing a city Facebook page for the first time. 
 
Armitage has also created the Milan Youth Council, a program where area high schoolers act as liaisons to various governmental departments. Armitage says he benefited from having former local officials as friends and mentors when he got started in government, and he hopes to provide the same for a new group of young public servants. 
 
"Don't be afraid to seek the advice of those that are older, that have seen some things," he says. "I was lucky when I was running for office."
 
Jeremy Peters, 34, Ann Arbor City Planning Commission
Jeremy Peters says there's no "separate agenda" dividing him from his older colleagues in Ann Arbor politics. 
 
"I think I'm just sort of a younger version, in certain ways, of those people who want to stay in town for the long term," Peters says.
 
However, Peters says it will take some work to make it possible for him and his fellow millennial Ann Arbor residents to age in place. He says one of the keys is "really, really, really good transit," making it easier for people to work, study, shop and run businesses in the city. 

"[Millennials] like streaming music, we like leasing cars, we like renting houses," he says. "And I guess if we don't have to, we wouldn't mind not having to have a car. So having really strong transit is one of those things that drives strong economic growth in the city." 
 
While he wants to strengthen downtown Ann Arbor, Peters says he aims to do so without disturbing the city's neighborhoods. "It's not neighborhoods versus downtown," he says. "It's neighborhoods and downtown."
 
Peters bristles at the idea that he and his peers are out to remake Ann Arbor to their own specifications, a misconception he says his generation is often "saddled unfairly" with. He says there's a reason that he's now spent 12 years living in the city and, as of last summer, taking a role in shaping its future. 
 
"It's because of that history, because we want to connect with that," he says. "I feel super-lucky to live in a city like Ann Arbor. I've had qualms or I've had thoughts about moving elsewhere, and I've never been able to do it because I love the city. And there's a lot of people like that."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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